About the Ithaca City Cemetery

The Ithaca City Cemetery is not only the final resting place for significant figures in New York State and American history, but it also epitomizes the changing cemetery aesthetic that reflected cultural shifts in the community it served, as well as the country at-large.

While the oldest grave sites in Tompkins County are those of the Cayuga Indians and their predecessors, the first recorded burial on the site that is now known as the Ithaca City Cemetery took place in 1790 or 1791, when only a few families had settled in Ithaca, clustered near the foot of East Hill. When Rachel Allen, seventeen, died as her family was passing through town, they buried her in the area of the cemetery closest to University Avenue, known as the Old Burying Ground. This spot was most likely chosen for its distance from the population center, as well as its location uphill from Ithaca’s flats and seasonal flooding.

At the time of Rachael’s burial, the land was owned by New York Surveyor General Simeon DeWitt. DeWitt approved of the use and in 1824 taxes were raised by the then Village of Ithaca for the erection of a fence and the Board of Trustees established a committee to oversee the project. In 1835, Solomon Southwick wrote, “It is delightfully situated on a lofty eminence, as all graveyards ought to be, and surrounded very nearly by beautiful prospects.” In just a few short years, the informal burial site had evolved into a dedicated village burial ground.

While Rachel’s burial spot would have been marked with the handmade marker of wood and field stones typical of pioneer graves, the oldest headstones in the cemetery are made of slate, reflecting the material’s local availability and ease of carving. However, preferences soon changed to more durable stones such as white marble from Vermont (when it became affordable) and granite (when technology advanced enough to allow it to be carved easily), as slate has a tendency to flake off in sheets.

Beginning in the 1840s, the burial ground was enlarged through the acquisition of additional lands to the east and north. Roads and paths were laid out, and a bridge was constructed over the creek that divided the property into two areas, north and south. Terraces, swales and retaining walls transformed the terrain into a park-like setting that took advantage the hillside to create vistas of the lake and village below. The July 30, 1845 issues of the Ithaca Chronicle described the “fine effect of the tasteful regulation of the new ground … in contrast with the jumbled irregularity of the old.”

The simple burial ground had been transformed into a planned, fully landscaped cemetery and was developed in the manner of the Rural Cemetery Movement which created open public spaces in and near cities, since public parks did not yet exist. Families visiting rural cemeteries in the late-nineteenth century would typically stroll though the grounds or picnic at the site of their loved one’s memorial. The “new” cemetery was called Mount Repose and it was compared favorably with Mount Auburn in Boston and Mount Hope in Rochester.

Prior to 1844, burials were made available without charge, but in that year the Village Trustees offered plots for prices that varied based on size and location. The first vault, built into the terraced hillside opposite the old burying ground, was completed in 1846 and was known as the Corporation (or Village) Vault.

“Group” burials began in 1844 with the purchase by the Ithaca Lodge of the International Order of Odd Fellows of fifteen contiguous lots and construction of a marble monument in 1858. In 1852, five lots were set aside for the Fire Department, which erected a monument surrounded by an elliptical drive in 1861.  And in 1856, the Society of the Sons of Israel created a Jewish cemetery at the southeast corner of the public one, accessible through the main cemetery. Until 1865, local Roman Catholics were buried in their family plots; in that year, Mt. Olivet Cemetery was begun at a site on East State Street. The Sydney Post, Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was given a 40-foot-square lot in the cemetery in 1878, intended for “indigent members of the Post.”

In 1872, the Board of Trustees voted to rename the cemetery Silvan Hill and the subsequent design and layout of the cemetery was influenced by the Lawn Cemetery Movement, which advocated the use of native trees and bushes in cemeteries, prohibiting railings or enclosures, and passing rules on the size, style and number of monuments to ensure the visual purity of the park-like setting. Thus began a shift away from the Romantic garden plan to the grassy lawn model of cemeteries.

Despite a national trend discouraging burial vaults, the late 1870s and 1880s saw the construction of several family vaults alongside the Corporation Vault, for the Alonzo Cornell, Esty, Christiance, Cowdry, Van Cleef, Lewis, McGraw-Turner, and Rumsey families. Ithaca may have bucked the trend because the site was uniquely suited to vaults built into a hillside and, as space constraints became an issue, this location offered the only sites for the burial of prominent citizens. The last of the cemetery’s twelve vaults was constructed for Cornell Professor L.A. Wait in 1890 but it was located in the far northwest corner of the cemetery, near the Fireman’s Memorial.

Ithaca was incorporated as a city on June 1, 1888 and Silvan Hills became the City Cemetery. The principal evolution of the cemetery concluded by 1890, and maintenance was officially merged with those of the parks. The large majority of lots were sold by this time, although the pedestrian paths were filled in by the 1920s so that additional gravesites could be added along the roadways. The last significant development within the cemetery was the addition of the Temple Beth El parcel in the 1930s, which is still in use today.

The Ithaca City Cemetery is a significant history resource worthy of – and in need of – preservation.

Some passages excerpted from Barbara Ebert, The City Cemetery, Ithaca, New York, 1790 – 1890, Master of Art Thesis, Cornell University, 1992.

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